Amid an influx of Chinese investment into Cambodia, local residents are starting to see the Chinese language, more specifically mandarin, as an important skill within the labour market. However, many people are concerned that the language could be subject to a perception issue on Chinese economic interests in Cambodia.
In an interview with Khmer Times, Chai Keqing, director of the Confucius Institute at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, and his Cambodian co-director Vuth Sophakna say the Chinese language is simply an effective means of communication to facilitate business operations and bilateral relations, rather than a political tool.
KT: Can you briefly describe the mission of the Confucius Institute?
Mr Chai: Confucius Institute’s major mission is to teach the Chinese language to foreigners. We have 1,600 Chinese classes in 150 countries. We opened the Confucius Institute in Cambodia in 2009, exactly 10 years now. Apart from Chinese language learning, we promote cultural exchange because in order to learn Chinese quickly, students also need to learn about Chinese culture, tradition, customs, religion and so on. Meanwhile, we also introduce Cambodian culture to our people.
KT: What are some of the achievements of CIRAK in Cambodia over the past 10 years?
Mr Chai: So far, we have 24 branches in 12 provinces and cities. We have also provided scholarships to numerous students to study in China and organised study trips between the two countries, which facilitate the communications between people and institutions in both countries. Students who have studied in China acquire vast modern knowledge, which they bring back to their country. With many Chinese businesses in Cambodia, they can find work easily, receive big salaries and improve their living. Many of them have even been recruited by the Chinese government and Chinese Embassy in Cambodia.
In addition, CIRAK has also organised science platforms, in which scientists from both China and Cambodia can trade their findings and knowledge. We have also translated books and documents in Khmer into Chinese and vice versa.
KT: Why is the Chinese language so important in Cambodia right now? How has China been promoting its language?
Mr Chai: Chinese language, like other languages, is a means of communication. Yet, currently, there is a sharp rise of Chinese investments and businesses in Cambodia while the relation between Cambodia and China is stronger than ever. Indeed, we need enormous human resources who can speak and write Chinese. No matter what your purpose is for studying the Chinese language, it is always important. If you do not know their language or do not understand anything about their culture, it is very hard to communicate, to work or to do business with them. Meanwhile, if the whole world can use a single language, it is so much easier to exchange opinions.
KT: Does that mean Chinese youngsters do not really need to study other languages except their own?
Mr Chai: What I mean by “a single language” is not Chinese. In China, our students are learning many foreign languages, including the Khmer language. Many universities in China now have Khmer language programs.
KT: Recently, China seems to be spreading their language to other countries at a rapid pace. What is the purpose behind that?
Mr Chai: From what I know, there is no “rapid pace” in promoting the learning of the Chinese language. For example, in this new academic year at CIRAK, we will reduce the number of native teachers to motivate the recruitment of local Chinese language instructors. This is a part of our cultural exchange. At the same time, at CIRAK, we are also teaching the Khmer language to Chinese people. I also want to learn Khmer, but unfortunately, my busy schedule does not allow me to do it.
KT: Many Cambodian people, especially youngsters, seem to be annoyed and worried about the presence of a number of Chinese people as well as their culture in Cambodia? What can you say about that?
Mr Chai: Throughout history, millions of Chinese people came to Cambodia and their descendants were born here and/or grew up in the country’s cultural context. As a result, their culture is a mixture of Cambodian and Chinese cultures, which is very different from the Chinese people who come here nowadays. The new Chinese people who come here today do not know much about the local culture and traditions while the Cambodians do not know much about their culture. In such a case, misunderstanding is inevitable. There may be some Chinese people who have improper behaviours, but they do not reflect on the entire population of China. Such people exist in all nations on the surface of the world.